Sticks and Stones

Dear Alicia Dearn,

In my novel Both Sides of the Fence, there’s a scene when the two main characters are kids, walking home from school and quarreling. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet. But I will tell you that it was inspired by an experience I had in my childhood.

When I was in middle school, I was heavily bullied. I was smart and a people-pleaser (due to some other traumas that I won’t get into now). This wasn’t a good combination for middle-school survival, and I got branded a nerd. I was everyone’s target. And I was radioactive.

My solution was to skip seventh grade. It was at my own initiative because I wanted to get out of middle school—I thought high school might be better, and it was.

Anyway, there was a boy. He was easily the most popular boy in my class. I was in a small class of only about thirty kids in my grade. Our houses were close and we walked home following the same route.

There were a lot of times during those days when he would follow me and tease me, including pulling on my hair and backpack, and poking me with sticks (and sometimes making crude suggestions about what I should do with the sticks).

It was kind of like this:

This always happened in front of other kids. I just thought they all hated me and I refused to cry in front of them. But I would cry when I got home, and I chose to be alone a lot during those years.

On occasion, he and I would be alone together—both in and out of school. (Long story.) During those times, we would have long conversations and he seemed to like me.

It really confused me. Because I was twelve.

Tragically, the whole time I knew him, this boy was fighting leukemia. Over the summer between middle school and high school, he died.

I went (by myself) to his funeral at the town church. After the service, his mother came up to me. I had never met her before, but she knew who I was. She told me that he talked about me to her all the time. She thanked me for being his friend. I was floored.

I will never, ever forget that.

My perspective as an adult about the emotional states of young teenagers, especially ones dealing with cancer (something I’ve struggled with as an adult), is much clearer. I hoped to infuse both the realistic behavior, and the empathy of adult perspective, into the childhood characters of Both Sides of the Fence.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear whether you think I succeeded. Just reply to this email and let me know how you reacted to those chapters.

If you haven’t read it, I hope you do, so my emails aren’t spoilers.